The recent claim of the Chinese Communist Party identifying its regime as “a socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics” is a half-baked truth. While the first half of the statement is a sheer mockery of the concept and practices of democracy worldwide, the second part is worryingly correct. The regime is characterized by the Chinese characteristics of authoritarianism, a visible lack of transparency, no space for free voice and expression, and democracy misappropriation. While China ostentatiously flouts the very basic tenet of democracy with its Chinese characteristics, the freedom of the press and media, it still unabashedly calls itself a new and true form of democracy.
The Chinese government on their website, while indirectly taunting the practice of democracy in the US, writes, “The Chinese democracy enables people to effectively exercise their power and express their will… protects people’s right of supervision… oversight by the people’s congress is an important part of democratic oversight.” A little too open-ended a statement to make where the words like “oversight” and “supervision” can take any form, and with Chinese characteristics, it takes its unique form of suppression of voices and criticism it finds antagonistic to its ways. Though, the very essence of democracy is political competition, opposition, and checks and balances installed by the media. Chinese characteristics lack it all.
The so-called “new form of democracy” in China has gained much defamation for its freedom of the press. As per Reporters Without Frontiers, Beijing is regarded as the “world’s largest prison for journalists”. The government has always been heavily invested in “perception management, not just in China but also worldwide.
The game is a simple, two-step process followed by the state and state-owned media houses: First, salvage the nation’s international image whenever there is any criticism worldwide by either presenting a positive (and might be false) image of China across media platforms using innovative approaches like use of a “pro-development narrative”; or greenwash its projects like BRI; or portray the debt-trap diplomacy into “ benign good-doer image of China” by playing “Global South fraternity” card. Thus, the media invests enormous power in setting and re-shaping/ re-imaging the discourse globally.
Second, and highly interlinked, is the use of brute force of power by the PRC on the press within and beyond China. Beijing conducts a campaign of repression against journalism and the right to information worldwide. The party’s Propaganda Department directs all the media houses about the censored topics and editorial guidelines for spreading information in China and beyond. The Chinese characteristics of the self-proclaimed democracy accuse any “not falling in line” journalists with charges like espionage, subversion, and provoking troubles, and keep them under strict scrutiny and Surveillance, and often detainment and torture, in the jails.
The 2023 World Press Freedom Index ranked China the lowest, after North Korea. China has the largest number of journalists behind bars. Citizen journalists who acted as whistle-blowers against the Chinese excesses either during the pandemic and lockdown or raising their voices during labor exploitation or environmental exploitation, among others.
An Australian journalist, Cheng Lie, made it to the news a few months back because of her detention in Beijing, where she was subjected to strict interrogation as a suspect of illegally supplying state secrets overseas. Another Chinese journalist Wang Jing, currently in asylum in the US, was detained on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” where such grounds remain open to interpretation and are used by the Chinese authorities at their convenience. Journalists often face consequences like online trolling on social media, which is suspected to be backed by the Chinese authorities, along with assaults, cyber hacking, and refusal to obtain visas. Foreign journalists, particularly from the West, in China, face a lot of harassment and intimidation by authorities.
To clamp down on the voices of democracy, China has been using its legal system very efficiently. This is evident from the “national security law” case, which has been used to shut down pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong.
As per Journalist Without Borders, China is the biggest exporter of propaganda content, and reports that the media ecosystem has downgraded with government crackdowns and ever-increasing censorship, forcing journalists to change their occupation under the regime of Jinping. There is telling academic evidence suggesting that state-controlled TV programs bolster the regime support and mobilization of mass political participation, along with the use of social media to ensure its political stronghold among the masses. Moreover, empirical evidence also suggests that countries that trade heavily with China are more prone to media censorship.
The perception management strategies followed by China involve the use of censorship and data harvesting by the state, thus leading to large-scale manipulation of global media worldwide. It also involves covert purchases of media houses overseas to manufacture content and, by extension, manufacture consent in line with Chinese ambitions. Thus, as per a report, the information manipulation business is slowly receiving billions across the globe in exchange for a clean image of China.
The regressive turn in the state’s attitude towards press freedom, which got aggravated post-COVID-19, has concerned the international community collectively. In the spirit of telling the “China story well”, it has been reported that journalists need to undergo mandatory political training to indoctrinate them with the thoughts of the leadership, thus inculcating a culture of propaganda from the very ground level. Journalists dabbling with the topics considered “sensitive” by the state are always at risks wide-ranging from threats to detention to incarceration to death. That is not typical of any democracy. To summarise, press freedom in China is not just a Chinese concern but a global one. First, the growing power of China in Asia and Africa and its ambition to stand as an alternative power bloc to the West provides it an incentive and strength to manipulate media and manufacture pro-China discourse and consent at the global level. The Chinese government has often promoted censorship in foreign countries to protect its image and hide its malpractices in spheres like the environment, labor laws, minorities, and press freedom. Moreover, China has often shown sheer indifference to the absence of freedom amongst its trading partners which stands as a tacit acceptance and promotion of censorship overseas. That is why it is called by experts the largest exporter of media censorship practices. Second, it is a fundamental human right and an ethical issue that citizens can’t express their concerns openly, as any criticism is considered a vile threat to the regime. Thus, instead of living with brutal censorship practices as a necessary evil, this global problem needs to be addressed globally. It is essential for the watchdogs of press freedom and democracy to vehemently oppose the practices in China and attempt to protect those who raise their voices as well as hold Beijing accountable on international platforms. Democracy with Chinese characteristics and constricted press freedom is not a democracy; hence, it must be widely acknowledged globally in unison.